Overland miles: 3836 Tacocount: 53 Days without Sodas: 3
Antigua has to be one of the few cities in the world where you can find yourself waking up at 5am to climb an active volcano and getting to bed at 5am the next day after going to an illegal club night.
The former capital of Guatemala is a curious mix of outdoor adventure and colonial calm, tourists and locals, rich and poor. Both live side by side but the two never quite meet.
The market is likewise split in two – one half cramped and noisy with fruit and vegetable sellers, butchers displaying huge fly covered meat carcasses and mobile vendors festooned with (i.e. literally wearing) their wares. The other sells ‘artisan goods’ and tourist tat, aimed squarely at those in the market for something vaguely ethnic looking woven from brightly coloured wool, or a hilarious ‘Guat’s Up?‘ T shirt, both at vastly inflated prices.
Similarly, the more exclusive restaurants here charge extortionate prices: seeing a menu at the city’s French restaurant, Bistrot Cinq, charging upwards of Q120 (£10) for a main dish left a sour taste in our mouths. Even if we were on a bigger budget, we’d still rather eat at the local restaurants, where – as Jovian will shortly fill you in – you can get a set lunch that’s six times cheaper and just as tasty. The lack of local people in almost all of the city’s restaurants and bars was painfully noticeable. Unlike San Cristobal and Oaxaca in Mexico where there was a reassuring mix of locals and foreigners, in Antigua you’re acutely aware that all the faces around you are Western.
And the activities available by day and night are similarly different. We’d wandered the city’s maze of streets and checked out its churches but we wanted something a bit more exciting, a bit more danger in our lives, so decided to embark on our first ever volcano climb.
Antigua is surrounded by three volcanos and they make for spectacular views wherever you are in the city:
Our chosen volcano was Pacaya. We had originally wanted to ascend the more impressive Acetenango but as the buses left at an ungodly hour in the morning, we decided our search for more thrills wasn’t that desperate and opted for the extra time in bed. So at 5am the next day, we were painfully roused by our alarm clock to prepare for our adventure.
After another bone-shaking mini bus experience (on this occasion, they’d oversold tickets and we found ourselves squashed up next to two French teenagers on a seat intended for three people) we were deposited half way up the volcano to meet our guide who lived in a nearby village.
Pacaya is still an active volcano, which we’d hoped would add an extra element of excitement to our early morning ascent. And as we set off at a brisk pace, with it looming ominously in front of us, we felt a nervous chill of anticipation about what awaited us.
After an hour’s solid walking uphill, crunching and clambering our way over black granite rock (I guess the closest way to describe it would be like scaling a giant pumice stone) our guide announced it was time for breakfast. This was good news as a) we’d realised how unfit we’d become and were in dire need of a rest, and b) so far we’d only had a cinnamon roll and a banana bought at the market the day before so we were pretty hungry. All in all, volcano climbing was proving to be tough going.
Our guide then proceeded to get out a bag of marshmallows from his rucksack and announced our desayano was to be toasted marshmallows, made using the heat of the volcanic rock. Indeed, the temperature had been rising slowly, despite the fact that it was a pretty cloudy day, and that heat was being kicked out from the rocks around us – this was Mother Nature at work.
The advised cooking technique was pretty basic. We speared marshmallows onto sticks from one of the few trees still growing at this altitude and simply stuck them in a gap between two rocks until they went gooey and charred.
After a few minutes, this is what emerged:
The results were tasty if somewhat unusual: the smoke rising from deep within the belly of the beast we were straddling had transformed the mallows into a perfectly tacky, caramelised substance, tinged with a distinctly sulphuric flavour. Hunger sated and strength restored we were ready to tackle stage two of Pacaya, but it was not to be. The volcano had started to spew out some ominous looking clouds of black smoke, and our guide pointed to a reddish glow emerging at the peak, both apparently warning signs that there was some serious seismic activity going on, and we needed to descend -rapido. This was one time we wished that normal health and safety rules had been ignored, but we didn’t want to come face to face with a flow of molten lava, so reluctantly reversed our steps.
Fast forward 10 hours: we’d returned to the quiet streets of Antigua, had a hearty siesta and later joined friends celebrating a birthday in our hostel bar, ready for part two of our epic day. The birthday girl was Spanish and wanted to go out dancing but the law in Guatemala prevents anywhere staying open later than 1am. Given that this is the time most Spanish people think of heading out, this concept was anathema to our companions. Luckily for us, one of our group was born and raised in Guatemala City, and he informed us that dancing could be had – we just needed to know where to look for it. And so, five minutes later, we found ourselves on one of the city’s main streets, being ushered through a front door into what used to be someone’s house, stripped of its furniture, with a makeshift bar, and cool-looking guy dj-ing on an iPad in the corner. With its warehouse-styling, stripped back seating and neon lighting it wasn’t a million miles away from most hipster Shoreditch bars, only it was located in a shabby colonial building on the other side of the world.
And so the final hours of the day were spent getting our first proper introduction to nights out, Guatemala style. Cumbia – a kind of looping, lazy, latin music from Colombia was the order of the night. We were unsure about copying the clubbers’ confident rhythmic moves, but we soon got into the swing of things. We don’t how late the club stayed open, but after a few hours the morning’s efforts began to take their toll. We shouted our goodbyes in Spanish and English, then dived into the rainy night and back to our nearby beds, for some much needed sleep.